Body by Rikers: Getting to Know My Trainer, The Ex- and Future Con

'I'm going to make you a monster ...'

web trainer david saracino Body by Rikers: Getting to Know My Trainer, The Ex  and Future Con

Illustration by David Saracino.

A few months after I became a member of a cheap gym in Hell’s Kitchen, it dawned on me I had visited the place only once—when I signed up. I needed professional help.

The trainer occupies an odd position in our lives: despite often being someone you would have never met outside of the gym, he’s privy to your tenderest intimacies and physical vulnerabilities. Like a parent or spouse, he criticizes your smoking, drinking and eating habits, and you actually feel guilty. You’re his boss, sort of, but he’s also yours.

I’d long thought of trainers as an indulgence of the well-to-do. Paying someone to perfect my body seemed a sexy soupçon of vanity and sloth, as decadent as having a private chef. Then again, I told myself, maybe my suffering would lend the endeavor just enough wholesomeness to preserve my radicalism. Plus, the first session was free.

“Do you work out?” my taskmaster, Bashar, asked me, 15 minutes into our introductory session, as I struggled to bench-press the bar. Since I had not done anything more strenuous, for years, than bounce along on the elliptical for the duration of a medium-length Terry Gross interview and two Rihanna singles, I lied.

He laughed. “You’re crazy. I never meet anyone like you.”

He was 33, the son of Palestinian immigrants. He was sinewy, a lean, healthy looking alternative to the Pumping Iron vogue that—news flash, gym-absentees—still hasn’t gone away. He noticed my Observer T-shirt and asked if I was a writer, and if I could write about him for “a paper people read,” like the Daily News. When I demurred, he proposed that I help him create his own magazine instead. This was the only power I had over him—the power of the pen—and he piled on more reps each time I expressed reluctance about these projects.

“I’m going to make you a monster,” he would say.

In my daily life, the idea of exposing myself to five minutes of conversation, to say nothing of an hour of criticism, from someone like Bashar would have been unthinkable. I try not to throw up around anyone, certainly not during daytime hours. I don’t talk about the circumference of my arms.

But there’s something thrilling about paying someone to yell at you, a structured reminder of one’s frailty. Soon I was working out with Bashar twice a week. He asked me what rappers I liked, then mocked what I thought was a very credible answer. We had a camaraderie, though he laughed harder than I would have preferred whenever I sat backward on a piece of exercise machinery. And I didn’t love the way he took breaks to do his own reps or jokingly admire his physique in the mirror while asking me my opinion. These were the moments when I questioned who was in charge: was I really paying to watch Bashar preen, and to feel humiliatingly inadequate? He seemed to sense when he had gone too far, bringing me a bottle of water. “We gotta help each other, you and me.”


  1. Textgenie says:

    Real feeling in the Observer – surprising. Well written too. About time that jailing blacks and brown for picayune drug offenses to keep them off the job market was stopped.  Find them jobs, Washington.

  2. Rose says:

    Excellent piece. I am so glad someone took the time to write about people like Bashar- people whose lives are complex and often filled with the types of  experiences and traumas that don’t fit neatly into society’s pre-fabricated categories. Consequently, a one-size fits all approach to punishment often causes these people irreparable harm. This reductionistic view of crime and “criminals” is a shameful failure of the legal system that should be rectified as soon as possible if we truly wish to consider ourselves a just and merciful nation. 

    By the way, Bashar has been my trainer since July 2011. He is excellent-dependable, enthusiastic,and  although he often expresses views and opinions that are at times infuriating,  he is also always funny, kind, professional, devoted to his craft, and extremely hard working.And, finally, I am pleased to report that this story has a happy ending. Bashar has received probation. I am guessing this must be due both to his clean record  as well as to his many allies  (friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc)  who all rallied to his side and attested to his character. So, in this instance, I guess the system worked. Let’s hope there are increasing opportunities for individuals like Bashar (and there are many), to get another  chance at being a fully contributing member of society.Oh, and if you want a great trainer call or text him at 917.545.3170. You can also email him at: This is a good way you can help people like him bypass the stigma and difficulty they often have in getting straight employment.